For pilots, getting from point A to point B on the ground is often more challenging than doing so in the air. The maze of runways, taxiways and ramps at large airports like Atlanta or JFK can be intimidating even for the most professional pilots.
If you’re terrified of making the wrong turn at a busy airport, you might be somewhat comforted to know that most taxiway and runway incursions are made by airline pilots. Of course, airline pilots frequent the busiest airports more often than small airplane pilots do, but it’s still helpful to know that even professional pilots have a difficult time navigating through the taxiways of LAX or Chicago O’Hare. I pulled up a few NASA ASRS reports made by pilots and controllers who experienced a runway or taxiway incursion. Most of these reports are wrong turns, many are the result of not checking NOTAMs and others are from vehicles on the runway.
It’s interesting to note, however, that a surprising number of ASRS reports are from pilots who mistake another airplane’s call sign for their own, accepting a clearance that was not theirs because they thought they heard Ground Control say their call sign. In addition, a surprising number of reports are from pilots who took off of landed from the wrong runway. And finally, maybe less surprisingly, there are numerous reports from pilots who moved beyond the runway hold short line or otherwise entered a protected are due to a distraction in the cockpit or because they lost situational awareness.
So how do you prevent a runway incursion? How do you ensure that you never hear those dreaded words November 00000, call tower after parking? Start with these tips:
Study ASRS reports.
In just a few seconds, I pulled up 245 pages of runway and taxiway incident reports from NASA’s ASRS database, totaling 12,218 reports. But you can narrow the search more by studying the common problem areas for airports you frequent. If you’re planning an flight to DFW, for example, a review of the common ASRS reports citing a runway incursion or excursion will give you some valuable insight into what goes on on the ground at that particular airport.
Study the airport diagram.
If you know which runway is likely to be in use, you can study the likely path that a controller might give you to your destination on the ground. In real life, it might not happen perfectly the way you hope it will, but if you run through a few likely scenarios that you might encounter when you get your taxi clearance as part of the preflight planning process, you’ll be glad you did. And always have an airport diagram on hand in the cockpit! (P.S. You can find all of the airport diagrams on our website.)
Ask the controller for progressive taxi instructions.
The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) states that if a pilot is unfamiliar with the airport, he or she may "request progressive taxi instructions which include step-by-step routing directions." It’s a service provided to help unfamiliar pilots. If you’re one of those unfamiliar pilots, why not just make the request for progressive taxi instructions?
Know your taxiway and runway signs and markings.
Study up. It’s possible that if you often fly out of small airports, you’re used to a single runway with a single parallel taxiway, and the signs are pretty easy to interpret, even if you haven’t read up on them lately. Large airports with multiple runways, intersections and a variety of taxiways that go in every direction, the runway and taxiways signs can be confusing. Know which signs are location signs, which are directional and which are mandatory will help a lot when it comes to navigating the taxiways.
Read back all hold short instructions.
On the ground at JFK is not the time to skimp on radio calls. It’s mandatory that you read back the taxiway clearance properly, including any hold short instructions. Controllers are required to get a read back of all hold short instructions from pilots. If you don’t read back the taxi clearance in a way that includes the hold short instructions, the controller will continue to tell you the clearance until you do. Listening to ground control on a handheld radio or on LiveATC.com would be a useful exercise for pilots who want to get used to how to red back these clearances properly.
Many runway incursions happen when one or both pilots are heads-down in the cockpit, or are busy talking to the passengers or on another frequency. Many of these incursions included pilots who taxied just a few feet past the hold short line of a runway without clearance just because they were recalculating TOLD data or pushing buttons on the CDU. Pay attention while you taxi.
Never cross a runway without a specific clearance.
Never, ever taxi onto a runway or other protected area with knowing for certain that you are cleared to do so. If you aren’t sure, query the controller.
If you aren’t sure, ASK!
As a final note, if you’re ever in doubt about which way to turn or whether you’ve been cleared onto a runway or to cross a runway hold short line, always ask. In all cases, it’s better to be absolutely certain than it is to hear the controller screaming at the Boeing 777 on final approach to go around because you taxied onto a runway when you weren’t cleared, which will always be followed by N0000, call tower when you land.